It wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always fun, but over the years you have built up a lucrative and well-respected practice. You have a well-trained staff and loyal, contented patients who trust and appreciate the excellent dental care you provide. But within the last year or so, each day in the office has been a little less fulfilling and a little more exhausting. So after reviewing your finances and after some careful soul-searching, you have decided to retire.
If you have followed all of the cardinal rules for selling a practice, you have taken pains to have your practice appraised by a qualified consultant. You have set a fair price, and you have found a buyer who is not only willing to pay that price, but is willing to work with you to make sure that the practice you have so painstakingly built up continues to serve your patients with efficiency, integrity, and compassion.
Before you turn over the keys, there are some loose ends that you need to wrap up – a number of details that have little bearing on financial arrangements, but are focused on the mental and emotional well-being of the people who will be most impacted by your retirement – your patients.
Your patients have always been important to you and you must be aware that your impending retirement will be strange and even stressful to many of them. Face it, a dental practice is nobody’s favorite place to visit and patients who learned to trust and value your practice will have to cope with a big change once your buyer takes over. You can have a tremendous influence on how well they deal with that change.
The first thing you must remember is that your buyer is not you. He or she will probably have a different personality, different tastes, different chairside manners and habits, and even different hours. To help your patients adjust to these differences, you and your successor need to work as a team.
A “Dear Patient” letter from you should begin the transition sequence. In the letter, you need to let patients know that you are leaving your practice, when you are leaving your practice, and even why you are leaving your practice. This does not mean a long-winded account of your plans to take a six-month walking tour through Wales. It simply means explaining to patients that you have decided that you are ready to move from a professional mode to a personal mode in your life.
The letter you send should include a sincere thank you to all your patients for their loyalty to the practice and to you. It should also introduce the buyer. While there is no need to gush, the letter should let patients know about the new dentist’s qualifications, experience, and accomplishments. All of this information should be presented positively, with a tone that implies that you trust this person and suggests that patients give him or her the benefit of all doubts. If at all possible, confirm that you will be staying with the practice for a time to ensure a smooth transition. Patients will be more comfortable knowing that they are not just being dumped into someone else’s lap, and your successor will be more comfortable knowing that you will be available to make introductions and provide background information that supplements information in patient files.
A follow up letter from the buyer should follow. The letter should be personable, but not pleading. It should begin with the buyer’s recognition of your importance to your patients and his respect for you as a professional. The buyer should never promise to fill your shoes or apologize for taking over your practice. He or she should merely assure patients that the tradition of excellent dentistry provided in the practice will continue. The tone of the letter should be enthusiastic, optimistic, and welcoming.
It is highly recommended that the letter from the buyer is sent to patients no more than a week or two after your own. The short time-span between the letters provides a continuity and reinforces the idea that this will be a smooth and friendly transition, not a hostile takeover. It is also recommended that you and the buyer review each other’s letters to ensure some compatibility in the messages you are sending to patients. Nothing is as disconcerting to patients in this transition period as perceived contradictions.
During the transition period, patients should be able to see you working with the buyer. You may be tempted to schedule alternative hours which alleviate your workload and give you some extra free time, but this can present an image of two people who don’t care to occupy the same space at the same time. Patients who see two colleagues working together for their benefit are more likely stay with the practice after you are gone.
One of the most important things you can do for patients during this time is to provide the buyer with accurate and well-maintained patient records. All documents should be well-organized; all handwritten notations should be legible. Clear records will make it easier for the buyer to better understand the type and scope of dentistry your patients are accustomed to and may assist him or her in formulating a protocol that is best suited to meet patient needs. Old inactive files should be separated from active files. You may want to spend some time reviewing certain inactive files with the buyer – you are the expert here and you are most qualified to suggest whether there is potential for reactivation.
Equally important is enlisting the help of the staff members who will be remaining with the practice during the transition period and after you retire. Many buyers will choose to work with a well-established team rather than go through the grueling process of interviewing potential assistants, receptionists, and hygienists while coping with making a new practice run smoothly. If this is the case, you should encourage your team to be goodwill ambassadors for the buyer by helping patients understand that service will not be disrupted and that the dentistry offered in the practice will continue to be exceptional.
Following these simple and courteous transition rules will help give your patients peace of mind during the adjustment period and beyond. It will also help you to enjoy your retirement without worrying about them.